This summer I was lucky enough to attend a creative writing conference where I participated in a class on writing dialogue. The instructor, a well-established author, outlined a couple of major “no-no’s” in writing dialogue: most prominently, in all-caps, DO NOT WRITE IN VERNACULAR. He described vernacular as a lazy tool for writers, a quick and sloppy way to characterize through insulting caricature. He encouraged us to consider modern-day texts which used vernacular or phonetic spelling to illustrate an accent, and I ended up thinking about the Harry Potter series.
Although most of the series’ characters are understood to speak with British accents, only certain accents are illustrated on the page through vernacular language or phonetic spelling. The standard British accent is designated as the default accent, and variations on this accent are phonetically recorded. I also noted that these vernacular accents were generally assigned to less-intelligent or shady, shifty characters. Often, these accents were a source of humor and color. As a kid, having these books read aloud to me, I loved when my dad would slip into Hagrid’s voice, littered with dropped syllables and apostrophes: “… but I never thought yeh wouldn’t even know abou’ Hogwarts, fer cryin’ out loud!” Now, I see how these authorial choices create a norm and an “other,” associating certain language patterns with unintelligence, sneakiness, and humor.
At the same time, I find myself wondering if vernacular should be totally abandoned, like my writing instructor advised. If vernacular poetry truly seeks to capture how real human beings actually speak, that seems like a noble endeavor and a way to tackle condescension or elitism in literature. In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Cabin Tale,” his use of the vernacular becomes a source of power, a way to turn expectations back onto his readers. Although the poem is posited as a “plantation tradition” story, catered to a white audience, the near-impenetrable language masks a trickster tale that promises an end to master-slave dynamics. Although audience expectations may have forced Dunbar to write largely in a dialect of the plantation tradition, he seems to use that dialect to almost alienate his audience. It makes me think of how Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” tells of a knowledge that Dunbar’s speaker will not share. Readers might feel cheated by this, like they are entitled to that secret. It seems to me that Dunbar’s refusal to share that knowledge, coupled with his difficult dialectics, might be a response to the entitlement of white readers: this isn’t for you to understand. I can see how Dunbar’s use of vernacular language could be read as revolutionary.
However, in popular literature today, the only vernacular I’ve encountered seems to function as a way of other-ing, of denoting variations from the “right” way of speaking. Although in theory a way of capturing realism, vernacular seems to actually be enforcing the elitism of “proper” English. This contradiction is something I was struggling with as a creative writer, even before our discussion in class today. I’ve been working on a creative-nonfiction piece about my grandmother, a first generation Portuguese immigrant with a strong accent. I love the way that she speaks—always in the present-tense, no matter what time period she’s discussing, with no room wasted for articles or verb endings. To transcribe her speech into “proper” English would feel like a betrayal, a flattening-out. At the same time, I worry that I’m turning my grandmother’s speech into a gimmick or that my attempts to capture her language will only make her seem childish or uneducated.
I wonder if this is an issue of privilege. To me, an educated and successful writer like JK Rowling’s use of improper English to connote unintelligence or seediness feels condescending, like punching-down. Dunbar’s use of vernacular is different in my eyes, because his work takes the language that has been “assigned” to him and repossesses it, turns it back on his audience: “Want some mo’, you rascal, you? / No, suh! no, suh! dat’ll do.” But truthfully, I still don’t really know how to fit my own writing into this system of privilege. I’m sorry I can’t come to a more satisfying conclusion right now, but I think this is a question I’m going to need to keep thinking about and will probably have to keep confronting in my writing.